You all surely have been in a car with small children on a long journey that seemed to them never to end. Perhaps you were among the children. Perhaps the parents. “Are we there yet?” “How much farther?” “Why can’t I have more candy?” “Jimmy’s been by the window five whole minutes—now it’s my turn!” Boredom plus a sugar high makes squablers of the most amicable siblings. Parents in those circumstances can get testy, and maybe even yell at the kids to keep still. But I’ve never heard of a parent throwing poisonous snakes into the back seat to silence the children with slow and painful deaths.
That’s just what God did to the children of Israel, according to our text from Numbers. The Israelites were complaining about the march and the food and God just got fed up. He sent the snakes and the Israelites were dying. They begged Moses to get God to stop and God gave instructions for Moses to make a magical bronze serpent which, when looked at by those bitten by the snakes, would heal them. You see the image of the snake on a pole on ambulances and hospital doors, symbolizing healing.
Now the first lesson to draw from this text is that you shouldn’t believe everything the Bible says about God. I know that might be hard for some people to take, but we just have to learn to read the Bible with theological discretion. In this story, and many others concerning the Exodus, God is portrayed as a petty, adolescent divinity who causes untold suffering to people just so that they will glorify him. Remember that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart against letting the Israelites go, for the explicit purpose of showing off God’s power, as in killing off all the first-born Egyptians. If you read those stories again as you would read a novel, looking to interpret the individual characters, God will seem a far cry from the almighty creator who loves each and every creature and who insists on justice. Even when you read those stories with the eyes of faith, not those of a literary critic, take the narrations that make God a player in a drama with a grain of symbolic salt. Remember that God is not really in the narrative but rather creates it. Nevertheless, the narrative do have a point about God.
In our Numbers story of the snakes, the Israelites had been a complaining lot; there was a similar instance in the previous chapter. Of course, we might have some sympathy for the Israelites. They had not asked to be brought out of Egypt, where they had been living on welfare since the time of Joseph two centuries earlier. The welfare had been transformed to workfare, but there is no evidence that their lives were worse than the lives of most of the Egyptians. It was Moses’, or rather God’s, idea to take the Israelites out of Egypt, promising them a land flowing with milk and honey. Moreover, God kept the Israelites tromping around the desert for forty years for the explicit purpose of letting the adults who had come from Egypt die off before reaching the Promised Land. No wonder the Israelites were a grumbling bunch! The Israelites deserve some sympathy.
The matter of complaints on life’s journey, however, is more serious than the snake story suggests. Let that story be a symbol for the more serious matter. Life’s journey aims at the Promised Land of peace and justice in society, of grateful care for the place we have in the cosmos, and of maturity, creativity, and responsibility in our personal lives. The Promised Land is not so important for being there, nice as that would be, but for getting there. God creates us to be on a journey through which our own creation is completed. Through our journeys we live into ourselves.
We are in the wilderness, are we not? Our society is not at peace, whatever we profess. In fact, the gratuitous war in Iraq, which has killed many tens of thousands of our neighbors, has shown us to be a bellicose nation to the shame of our heritage; the journey to peace begins with a journey to becoming peacemakers, and we still have far to go. Our society is not just, however much progress we have made in some areas. Psychologists have shown that, even after decades of working on racism, many people both white and black unconsciously see white people as more competent and trustworthy than black people. After decades of working to improve the status of women, many women and men unconsciously perceive men to be more competent in leadership than women, as Secretary of State Clinton complained in the last primary campaign. The work to achieve justice for sexual minorities has made some outstanding gains, especially here in Massachusetts. But bigotry against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people is still fierce, still publicly acceptable, and still most vicious in churches, synagogues, and mosques. We are still in the wilderness. The image of God as transcendently just and merciful is a mirror that reflects back to us just how far we have to go, and how much help we need. Because the transcendent Creator’s fecund love is as intimate to every creature as it is to us, it shines as our standard of justice and mercy in the Promised Land. The immensity of the Creator’s love shames us when we dare to see and acknowledge where we are. We are in a wilderness of shame.
We are also in a wilderness of blindness when it comes to caring for our place in the cosmos. Modern science has shown us to be in a universe vastly older and larger than anything imagined in biblical times. We are not its center but off on the edge of one small galaxy amidst millions. The cosmos is not mainly about us. We first have to image and know God to be the creator of that vast cosmic extensiveness of reality before we can form an image of God as related to the particular affairs of human life. This God is awesome beyond measure, revealed more in the nuclear forces of the universe than in human story, the source of every blast of cosmic gas and dissipation of balanced order. To know our true humble place in creation, we need symbols of God of cosmic extension.
Moreover, human life with its personal developments and narratives floats atop a density of nature almost immeasurably intensive. Our personal lives are embodied in the muscles, bones and nerves of our bodies, which are sustained by our environment, which is made up of billions of ecologies of creatures, which are organisms of living and inorganic parts, microbes of cell life, balancing biochemical processes, fermenting in oceans of chemicals, in extremes of heat and cold, pressures and fissions, with nuclear forces binding and breaking, all springing forth from an astonishingly dense divine Creative Act. Until we can worship the God who creates us through this intensiveness of nature, system within system, we cannot put in perspective how to imagine our problems of living relative to God. The struggles, stories, and wars of human beings are like a tiny spot of oil floating on a unmeasured ocean when we lift them to the divine perspective.
The vast cosmic extension and the immeasurably intensive natural systems of our existence are the controlling symbols of the divine Immensity! These symbols need to be the orientation points to which we refer when we play with symbols of God as an actor in our dramas, hardening the heart of Pharaoh, killing the Egyptian first-born, choosing Israel as a nation of priests, sending snakes to punish complainers, defeating the Communists, making America the greatest power on Earth, or calling for a crusade against Muslims terrorists. Stories like these are indeed human problems. We human beings do need to worry about the issues of war and peace, of survival and flourishing, and we need to understand how these issues relate to God. But before we imagine God squeezed into our dramas like a partisan actor, we need to bow in awe and gratitude before a divine Creator as immense as the cosmos and intensively present in us as the depths of nature. Whereas our problems are all-important to us, their scale in the divine creative act is tiny. Care for the environment is far more religiously important than national and cultural struggles. Our ridiculous pride in thinking God literally to be a partisan in our narratives leaves us in a wilderness of blindness.
The journey by means of which we are created is personal for each one of us. Each of us must grow up, become mature, and take responsibility for the myriad issues of family, friends, career, and community that come up on our watch. We all are at different places on our personal journeys, and many of our journeys intertwine like marriages and long friendships. This sense of personal journey is more familiar to us than the issues of a social journey, and those of our journey to find a humble place in God’s cosmos. Sometimes the wilderness of our personal journey seems like a land of snakes; other times it is rather like a bracing hike. No one’s journey is smooth all the way through.
But things get really bad when we begin to complain about the journey: bad food, exhausting walks, poor economy, insufficient help, faithless friends, crippling indecision, and all the rest. When we complain, we seem to think that our personal journeys are all about us, when they really are about who we can be for God and the world. Then we fall into a wilderness of insecurity, and you know what insecurity can lead to: fear, aggression, willful ignorance, irresponsibility, immaturity, addictive compulsions, and regression to uncivilized impulses.
A wilderness journey in which we are shamed, blind, and insecure is something about which a complaint might indeed be lodged. And do we not complain?
John the Evangelist used the story of Moses’ snake lifted up in the wilderness as an image of healing that he likened to Jesus Christ being lifted up on the cross. As the magical snake cured snake-bite, so the crucified Jesus cures the poison in our souls. Now, that passage in John has been interpreted with some mischief. Feminists have pointed out the danger in the line, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Taking the line literally and associating Jesus with the crucifixion makes God look like a child-abuser. So, don’t take that image of God as Father too literally as a guide to parenting. That passage also has been used to justify a kind of Christian exclusivism, namely, that only Christians, who believe in Jesus, can be saved. But the passage does not say that Jesus was sent to start the Christian Church. It says he was sent as the light of the world. Seeing the light is what gives eternal life. It’s as if Jesus were a great flood-lamp lifted up for all to see.
The problem, according to John, is not whether the light is there—John says Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal Logos that is always present through the whole of creation. The problem rather is that we reject the light because we don’t want our bad deeds to be known. If, however, we are true, and accept the truths about our lives, we live in the light and that is eternal life, says John. The truths about our lives are about our journeys through the wilderness seeking peace and justice, a true and humble comprehension of our place in creation and how to care for it, and the excellences of a personal life lived well with love for God and neighbor. This wilderness journey is difficult, and that’s the truth. We can be shamed, blind, and insecure, and that’s the truth. Shame, blindness, and insecurity can prompt endless complaining, and we do complain: that’s the truth.
As the cross with Jesus hanging on it is the ultimate wilderness journey, the gospel invites us to accept our wilderness journeys, even when undertaken with mind-numbing complaining, as our truth, seen in the divine light. We don’t have to be perfect in peace and justice, only struggling on toward greater peace and justice. We don’t have to be able to comprehend the cosmic immensity of God, only to struggle to find our place within it. We don’t have to be excellent, mature, responsible human beings, only working on it. We don’t have to replace complaining with Stoic indifference, only to be honest with our complaints and stay on the journey. What we should not do is to seek for darkness when the light is all around us. The light shows us the truth about our lives, and this truth, however worthy of complaint sometimes, has the power of eternal life.
Eternal life means many things. One of the most important is that our true being is what we are in and before God. Knowing this, and knowing that God is the creator of our lives in the wilderness, gives us all the confidence joy we need to embrace our lives as works of God’s love. Living in the light of this truth gives us the energy and joy to turn all the struggles of our journeys into ways of manifesting that love and loving God in return. What a paradox, that the horrible, sight of Jesus lifted up on the cross, more gruesome than a snake on a pole, is so beautiful and healing! Our complaints can never be so disconsolate that the light cannot bring us through them into God’s eternity.